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Rocket Report: Iran launches satellite; Artemis II boosters get train ride

All four RS-25 main engines are now installed on the core stage for the Artemis II mission.
Enlarge / All four RS-25 main engines are now installed on the core stage for the Artemis II mission.

Welcome to Edition 6.13 of the Rocket Report! While SpaceX waits for regulatory approval to launch the second full-scale test flight of its Super Heavy booster and Starship rocket, NASA’s contractors took two steps forward this week to prepare for the second launch of the government-owned Space Launch System on the Artemis II mission, which will send a team of four astronauts around the far side of the Moon. This launch is still more than a year away. How many Starship test flights will SpaceX launch before Artemis II? Will Blue Origin’s New Glenn be flying by then?

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets, as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Iran has launched a small satellite. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps successfully launched a small satellite named Noor 3 into orbit Wednesday, Reuters reported. This military satellite launched aboard a Qased rocket, a small launch vehicle powered by a liquid-fueled booster stage. The Qased, which means “messenger” in Persian, is reportedly capable of carrying a payload of up to about 100 pounds (45 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit. Publicly available US military tracking data indicated the rocket deployed the Noor 3 satellite into an orbit about 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth.

Purely military … This was the third consecutive successful launch of the Qased rocket to put a small satellite into orbit. The Qased design is likely derived from one of Iran’s medium-range ballistic missiles, and its ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps—designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US government—suggest a military purpose to the rocket and the satellites it carries into space. The commander of the Revolutionary Guard said the Noor 3 satellite would meet the military’s “intelligence needs” using cameras and “signal detection” technology, according to Iran’s state-run news agency. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

FAA closes investigation into New Shepard failure. The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday it has closed an investigation into the failure of Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster last September. The FAA said engineers determined the “proximate cause” of the accident was the “structural failure of an engine nozzle caused by higher than expected engine operating temperatures.” The FAA didn’t mention a root cause for the rocket failure, which occurred on a suborbital research flight, and not on a mission with any passengers on board. After detecting the failure, the unoccupied crew capsule on top of the rocket fired its abort motor and vaulted away from the New Shepard booster, parachuting to a safe touchdown. The rocket was destroyed.

Blue Origin remains mum on the issue … Blue Origin declined to answer questions from Ars, saying only that the company plans to fly again soon. That’s the same thing Blue Origin said back in March. Ars recently reported that Blue Origin could resume launches with the New Shepard booster as soon as October after implementing corrective actions. Blue Origin identified some of those corrective actions as design changes to the combustion chamber and operating parameters of the rocket’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine. The FAA said Blue Origin is required to implement 21 corrective actions in total, including unspecified “organization changes.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Space Force looks toward next responsive launch demo. The US Space Force’s successful “Victus Nox” responsive launch demonstration on September 14 set a high bar, with contractor teams proving that they could prepare a satellite for launch, integrate it with a rocket, and send it into orbit in record time, Space News reports. The payload, a Millennium Space small satellite, was operational 37 hours after launch. Leading up to the launch, the companies were able to integrate the payload and get ready for liftoff within 58 hours. Firefly Aerospace was given 24 hours’ notice to launch. The previous record for a rapid-response mission, set in 2021, was 21 days.

Where does responsive space go from here? … For a long time now, military officials have desired the capability to quickly react to threats by launching a satellite to meet a specific need. Examples of this situation include replacing a failed or destroyed satellite, fulfilling a battlefield requirement for tactical communications, or responding to an urgent need to monitor another country’s activities in space. The military’s next responsive space demonstration, called “Victus Haze,” will build on the lessons learned from Victus Nox. The Space Force’s focus is on exploiting manufacturing and operational capabilities already being developed by the commercial space industry—giving the military the ability to pull a rocket and satellite off an already-running production line—not in fielding a dedicated fleet of small responsive launchers that remain on standby to launch on need.

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

ArianeGroup adds funding to reusable rocket company. ArianeGroup, Europe’s largest launch vehicle manufacturer, recently invested 27 million euros into a reusable rocket startup called MaiaSpace, European Spaceflight reports. Founded in 2021 and headquartered in France, MaiaSpace is working toward the ambitious goal of a 2025 maiden flight of Maia, a partially reusable two-stage rocket that will be capable of launching a payload of about a half-ton into orbit, when setting aside margin for recovery of the methane-fueled booster stage.

Finally, some real money … MaiaSpace reported total expenses of just under 3.5 million euros in 2022, nearly half of which was devoted to workforce and staffing costs in the company’s first full year of operation. ArianeGroup has now injected about 33 million euros into MaiaSpace over the last year. This will help MaiaSpace ramp up hiring, testing, and manufacturing as it targets the 2025 inaugural flight of the Maia rocket. Recent technical progress reported by MaiaSpace includes a cryogenic filling test of a full-scale upper-stage qualification model, and sub-system tests on the rocket’s optional kick stage. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Military awards contract for innovative solid rocket propulsion tech. A startup named X-Bow Systems has received a $17.8 million contract from the US Air Force Research Laboratory to demonstrate additive manufacturing technologies for solid rocket propulsion, Space News reports. X-Bow specializes in additive manufacturing of solid rocket propellant to enable the rapid development of solid rocket motors, which are used by the military in tactical missiles and could be scaled up for use in space launch vehicles.

High hopes … X-Bow eventually hopes to compete for military contracts against established solid rocket manufacturers like Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which was recently acquired by L3Harris. The company’s founder, Jason Hundley, says X-Bow’s technology can work for any size rocket motor, and the 3D-printing technology will permit the stand-up of a solid propellant production line within 12 months rather than the three to six years it takes for traditional aerospace companies. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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